September 16, 2016

American-Russian cooperation in Syria - what could go wrong?

Russian President Valdimir Putin with senior military officers

Secretary of State John Kerry insists that the ceasefire in Syria is holding. I am not sure what metrics he is using to measure compliance, but anyone reading media accounts readily available on the internet, be they from the Syrian government or the various opposition groups, would say that violations are constant and range from the north to the south of the country.

The violations include Syrian Air Force helicopters dropping their dreaded barrel bombs in areas in which there is no designated terrorist presence. Designated terrorist groups are generally defined as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the former al-Qa'idah affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front), now calling itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (The Conquest of the Levant Front, or JFS). Of course, the Syrian government believes that anyone involved in the opposition is a terrorist and thus a valid target.

Artillery fire has been exchanged by virtually all parties in various parts of the country, including in the eastern suburbs of Damascus and in the besieged areas of Aleppo. As far as I can tell, no aid has yet reached the besieged sections of Aleppo. Secretary Kerry cited the humanitarian assistance provisions of the ceasefire as a key reason to accept an obviously flawed agreement. Mr. Kerry said after the agreement was reached that he will accept merely a "reduction in violence" as a measure of success.

Since the terms of the current "cessation of hostilities" does not include - as far as we can tell - any enforcement mechanism, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad continues to bomb opposition groups. They may be trying to inflict as much damage on these groups while they can. Although Mr. Kerry has not seen fit to completely tell us what is actually in the agreement between himself and his Russian counterpart, we are led to believe that once the U.S. and Russian forces begin cooperating and coordinating the fight against ISIS and JFS, the Syrian Air Force will be precluded from attacks on these non-terrorist opposition groups.

If the ceasefire holds for seven days (that would be until Monday), the Americans and Russians will establish a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to not only deconflict their air operations, but actually cooperate and coordinate airstrikes on ISIS and JFS. The JIC will be manned by intelligence specialists and operations officers. As with most military operations against non-state actors, this will be an intelligence driven effort.

As I ask above, what could go wrong?

Actually, a lot can go wrong. By necessity, we will have to provide not only operational information to the Russians, but sensitive intelligence information as well. That always comes with risk. Unless I missed something in what we know of the agreement, this is not a long-term intelligence exchange agreement with the Russians - they remain one of our primary adversaries.

Having been involved in operations in which I provided U.S. intelligence information to foreign intelligence services, you can try and protect the sources and methods used to gather and produce the information, but when you are dealing with professional intelligence officers, they will be able to glean a fair assessment of American intelligence capabilities.

Since the agreement - again, as we understand it - will preclude attacks on non-terrorist opposition groups, we will have to provide intelligence information on the locations of these groups, including those groups supported by the United States. If we think that information will not be relayed to the Syrian armed forces headquarters in Damascus, we are being terribly naive.

When, and I believe it is when and not if, this current ceasefire agreement completely collapses, the Syrian Air Force will once again take to the skies, this time armed - albeit indirectly - with excellent U.S. intelligence information on the location of the non-terrorist opposition groups.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the American-Russian coordinated operation against ISIS and JFS is successful - and it may very well be. American aircraft delivering precision guided munitions combined with the Russians' almost complete disregard for civilian casualties has the potential to eradicate the scourge of ISIS and JFS.

Then we turn to the future of Syria. At that point, the Americans and Russians will have removed Bashar al-Asad's greatest threats from the battlefield. In the absence of ISIS and JFS, and possibly other effective Islamist opposition groups, the remaining rebels - primarily the Free Syrian Army - will not have the military power to remove the Syrian regime, nor force it to the negotiating table.

The Syrian regime, likely still supported by Russian airpower and special forces, Iranian troops, Hizballah fighters as well as Iraqi Shi'a and Afghan Shi'a militias, will simply pivot and take on the remaining opposition. They will almost certainly be successful.

In that case, Russia and Iran will have achieved their foreign policy objective, that being the survival of the Ba'ath regime of Bashar al-Asad; we will have failed in ours.

That's what can go wrong.